I imagine that being in a band with twenty albums of material is burdensome at times. With that much history behind you, pleasing all of your fans while attempting to please yourself has got to be a daunting task. For years, Rush has fallen into the routine of playing whatever album they’re promoting, along with what I like to call “the first song on the album syndrome.” If they played an album from Signals, it was “Subdivisions.” If they played a song from Power Windows, it was “The Big Money.” Hold Your Fire? “Force Ten.” Roll the Bones? "Dreamline." It became very predictable, and I often wondered why they didn’t allow themselves to dig a little deeper into their extensive repertoire.
On Saturday at the United Center in Chicago, Rush mixed things up to a degree that undoubtedly left some people beside themselves with joy and others scratching their heads at yet another missed opportunity. I was somewhere in the middle, but ultimately I have to applaud Rush for finally shaking the dust off of some tunes that hadn’t seen a live performance in over a decade. Rush has always thrown a surprise or two in their setlist – “Presto” on the Time Machine tour, “Between the Wheels” on the R30 tour, “Circumstances” on the Snakes and Arrows tour – but this time around they performed at least six unexpected tracks.
If you liked 80s Rush – not their crowning back-to-back albums Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures – but from the subsequent synth-heavy releases, you were a happy camper.
Kicking off the 2 ½ hour show with “Subdivisions,” Rush didn’t leave the 80s until the 8th track, and not before surprising the audience with two songs I’d been hoping to hear for the past twenty years: “The Body Electric” from Grace Under Pressure, and “Territories” from Power Windows. In fact, PW won the contest for most songs (aside from Rush’s new release, Clockwork Angels). Who would have figured that one? “Analog Kid” from Signals was another great addition and a crowd favorite. Less effective was “Grand Designs” from PW, and why the rock trio can’t perform something other than “Force Ten” from Hold Your Fire is a mystery. It’s never been a showstopper, so why continue to grind through yet another performance of a tired song?
Geddy Lee was in fine form on Saturday, his voice as strong as it’s been in years, hitting the higher register on most songs – especially those from Clockwork Angels – consistently. Sure, he can’t sing “Temples of Syrinx,” but who can? Geddy couldn’t even hit those notes twenty years ago. Neil Peart made the wise choice of performing three mini drum solos this time out rather than one extensive solo. The result was an effective interlude between songs, rather than an extended piece that – to my ears at least – had sometimes grown tiresome. Especially effective was Neil’s electronic solo prior to “Red Sector A” (yet another surpriing choice).
Still early on their US tour, Alex occasional forgot to lip-synch the prerecorded vocal tracks he’s supposed to pretend he’s actually singing, but the result was the same. He also forgot to press his acoustic simulator at the beginning of “The Garden,” so the first two or three chords came blazing out of his guitar before he recognized his mistake. Still, he and his bandmates were – as always – masterful at their instruments and a pleasure to watch.
Equally masterful was the addition of a seven-piece string section that accompanied the band throughout the Clockwork Angels selections as well as three other songs. The highlight for me, aside from a beautifully pulsating introduction of the “The Garden,” was the addition of strings on “YYZ,” in which they doubled the guitar parts at key moments, lifting an already unbelievable song to new heights.
Some of the new material went over very well. “Caravan” has already become a fan favorite after its introduction during the Time Machine tour, and the driving “Headlong Flight” electrified the audience. Other songs went over less enthusiastically, and it wasn’t hard to conclude that Rush probably played two new songs too many. Nine was a lot to digest.
Ending the set with the typical trio of “The Spirit of Radio,” “Tom Sawyer” and a medley of selections from “2112,” Rush left the audience on a high note. But it’s easy to understand some of the disappointing posts I’ve read on-line. Of Rush’s twenty albums, ten had no representation whatsoever. Furthermore, they performed only one song from the 70s, (2112), one song from Permanent Waves (The Spirit of Radio) and two songs from Moving Pictures (Tom Sawyer and YYZ). It would have been nice to have heard “Free Will,” “Limelight,” “La Villa Strangiato” or a track off of Presto (“Superconductor,” anyone?).
Nonetheless, my son, my brother and I left the show happy to have heard a great band playing at a high level after all these years. In fact, I attended my first legitimate concert with my brother back on October 9, 1982, when we saw Rush perform at MECCA in Milwaukee. The Brewers were in the World Series, and Geddy and Neil both came out sporting Brewer garb during the opening number of “The Spirit of Radio.” When Geddy was supposed to sing, “one likes to believe in the spirit of music,” he substituted “music” with “baseball.” A more auspicious introduction to concert viewing in the eyes of a fourteen year-old boy there has never been.
Now, almost exactly thirty years later, and I saw Rush with my ten year-old son. How cool is that? And who the heck would have thought back in 1982 that the Canadian trio would still be pumping out solid material to well-attended concerts?